The Unsung Art of Followership
“When I grow up, I want to be a follower,” said no one. No kid aspires to follow others. No employee says his best quality is being a follower. No MBA student signs up for followership classes (and not just because business schools don’t offer them.) Being a leader is what counts these days. Leadership is rewarded. Leaders are glorified. A leadership role is the ultimate goal. A Google search for leadership produces 353,000,000 results. Followership? 9,100,000 — less than 3%. And yet, a leader needs followers; a good leader needs lots of good followers. So what makes a good follower?
Merriam-Webster defines followership as “the capacity or willingness to follow a leader.” Wikipedia says it’s “the actions of someone in a subordinate role.” Neither of these seem to capture that followership is a skill — and just like any other skill, it can be trained and developed. If you want to be good at followership, you have to work at it. There is an art of followership and it involves at least three things:
“Disagree and commit.” One of the “leadership” principles that the folks at Amazon embrace is “disagree and commit.” CEO Jeff Bezos wrote about it in his Letter to Shareholders this year: “If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, ‘Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?.'” He says this is one of the ways the company keeps its “decision-making velocity” high. It’s how Amazon leaders practice the art of followership.
“Disagree and commit” is the natural posture of a good follower. He shares his point of view with the leader but if they disagree and the leader insists on her way, he commits to going along with it. He doesn’t agree and then complain; he doesn’t agree and then goes around telling other people he’s right; he doesn’t agree and then try to do it his way anyway. He commits to the course of action.
Excellence. Just as leaders must do their jobs with excellence, followers must too. Followers must be reliable — a good follower demonstrates that her leader can depend on her to do the job well. They must be able to work independently — a good follower doesn’t need detailed instruction or constant supervision. They must be trustworthy — a good follower doesn’t leak information or talk about the leader or the work inappropriately. And they must be self-motivated — a good follower doesn’t require the spotlight. They do a good job even if no one notices, which is often the case.
Care for the team and the leader. Professional hiking groups usually include two “lead” positions: a guide and a sweep. The guide leads the way, clearing the path, setting the pace, and navigating the group to its destination. The sweep hikes last in the group and plays just as critical role. The sweep is responsible for keeping a count of the hikers, watching for injuries, etc. and making sure the pace is appropriate for everyone. As the literal and ultimate follower, the sweep cares for the team and helps them be successful. And he cares for the leader and helps her know when adjustments are necessary. It’s no different in the business world — leaders need sweeps to ensure their teams get to their destination.
Far too few people practice the art of followership. It requires humility and self-confidence — people who get their identity from the esteem of others will probably have a hard time being followers. Followership also requires discipline — people with natural leadership gifts have to learn to resist the urge to jump in and start leading. Above all, it requires clarity — clearly knowing when it’s time to follow. Thomas Paine once said, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” People must know the role they need to play.
Followership a gift — the best gift someone can give to a leader, and everyone should give it.